Re­sist­ing the fetish of con­sen­sus

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard King

SPEAK­ING in a re­cent in­ter­view, Christo­pher Hitchens said he was al­ways con­scious of writ­ing for pos­ter­ity. By this he did not mean to im­ply a fix­a­tion on his post­hu­mous rep­u­ta­tion but an at­tach­ment to a prin­ci­ple: only by writ­ing as if you will still be read when you are gone can you main­tain in­tel­lec­tual in­tegrity.

Nev­er­the­less, the ques­tion of pos­ter­ity has come into fo­cus of late, Hitchens hav­ing been di­ag­nosed with stage-four oe­sophageal cancer in the mid­dle of a pro­mo­tional tour for his su­perb mem­oir Hitch-22. Since, as he says, ‘‘ there is no stage five’’, it is nat­u­ral to won­der how he will be read in the fu­ture.

The as­sump­tion that un­der­lies The Quotable Hitchens is that Hitchens will be read, in part, as some­one to whom we can re­fer when we need a pithy ob­ser­va­tion about some im­por­tant is­sue of the day or pub­lic per­son­al­ity from the past. Or­gan­ised al­pha­bet­i­cally by sub­ject, and com­pris­ing snip­pets from Hitchens’s es­says, col­umns, books and tele­vi­sion ap­pear­ances, the book is a sort of Devil’s Dic­tio­nary, cov­er­ing top­ics as var­i­ous as Heresy, Heroes, Hezbol­lah and Paris Hil­ton (and that’s just page 128).

Ob­ser­va­tions on al-Qa’ida rub shoul­ders with paeans to al­co­hol, while Mel Gib­son serves as an ex­cel­lent spar­ring part­ner on the way to the ti­tle fight against God. There is also plenty of lit­er­ary ad­vice, such as the in­junc­tion to avoid the kind of im­age lamely de­ployed in the pre­vi­ous sen­tence. The sport­ing metaphor, Hitchens writes, ‘‘ is an in­fal­li­ble sign of an ex­hausted hack’’.

Though the book is sub­ti­tled ‘‘ from Al­co­hol to Zion­ism’’, the open­ing en­try is on abor­tion. Here is Hitchens at his forensic best: I have al­ways been con­vinced that the term ‘‘ un­born child’’ is a gen­uine de­scrip­tion of a ma­te­rial re­al­ity. Ob­vi­ously, the foe­tus is alive, so that dis­pu­ta­tion about whether or not it counts as ‘‘ a life’’ is ca­su­istry. As for ‘‘ de­pen­dent’’, this has never struck me as a very rad­i­cal crit­i­cism of any ag­glom­er­a­tion of hu­man cells in what­ever state. Chil­dren are ‘‘ de­pen­dent’’ too.

The first thing to note is the way in which Hitchens re­fuses to al­low moral­ity to be mo­nop­o­lised by the re­li­gious lobby; his is a ma­te­ri­al­ist per­spec­tive but is no less grounded in moral­ity for that. But it is to pro-choice peo­ple that his ar­gu­ments are ex­plic­itly di­rected, and their think­ing doesn’t come out of the en­counter well. What makes the per­for­mance even more im­pres­sive is that the ar­gu­ments for a ‘‘ woman’s right to choose’’ tend to come from within his own con­stituency. Fol­low­ing the ex­am­ple of his hero Ge­orge Or­well, Hitchens has al­ways urged on the Left the ne­ces­sity of ‘‘ fac­ing un­pleas­ant facts’’. And few facts are as un­pleas­ant as those sur­round­ing the ter­mi­na­tion of a preg­nancy.

In this case, Hitchens com­pli­cates an is­sue about which there are strongly op­pos­ing views. But many of the en­tries in The Quotable Hitchens con­firm him as some­one for whom ‘‘ op­pos­ing views’’ are of­ten not op­pos­ing enough. As a Marx­ist, Hitchens rel­ishes con­flict and is con­temp­tu­ous of the quest for po­lit­i­cal con­sen­sus. Bi­par­ti­san­ship is a dirty word: ‘‘ Bi­par­ti­san­ship’’, by which is meant back­room de­ci­sion-mak­ing, mu­tual soft­ped­dling and cov­er­ing-up, and all other man­ner of gov­ern­ing most ac­cu­rately

Fac­ing un­pleas­ant facts . . . au­thor and jour­nali

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